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January 31, 2008

A streetcar for West Main

This photo-simulation depicts what a streetcar on Water Street might look like Source: Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation

In late 2007, Seattle became the newest American city to reinstall streetcars when it opened up a 1.3 mile stretch of tracks looping through eleven downtown stops, including one about eight blocks from the Seattle Space Needle.

Earlier this month, the newly-created Northern Virginia Transportation Authority approved $37 million in funds to conduct preliminary engineering for a 4.7 mile streetcar line in Arlington from Pentagon City along Columbia Pike.

Could Charlottesville be among the next communities to look back at the nation’s transportation past in order to reduce traffic congestion and spark redevelopment along a central corridor?

That question is in part being addressed by the City’s Streetcar Task Force, a group of citizens and officials who have been studying the logistics of building a new streetcar system. Their work to-date is expected to culminate with a report to City Council next month.

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Listen using player above or download a podcast interview with Gary Okerlund and Todd Gordon, two members of the Streetcar Task Force: Download 20080131-Streetcar-Task-Force.mp3


When the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation commissioned the firm DJM+Harris Planning to assess Charlottesville’s transportation network in 2004, Engineer Roger Millar reached a definitive conclusion: the city’s quality of life was being negatively affected by its traffic congestion. 

One of Millar’s suggestions was for Charlottesville to install a streetcar along West Main Street to support a dense zone of development between the City’s two thriving economic centers - the Corner district to the west, and the Downtown Mall to the east.  West Main currently functions as the main connector road between Charlottesville’s two social and financial hubs, but the DJM+Harris Planning study proposed that the city ought to make the corridor a destination in and of itself.

Later in 2004, the idea got a major boost  when a grant from the Blue Moon Fund paid for a group of City and County officials to travel to Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington to experience two successful streetcar systems firsthand.  In all, 24 people took the trip.

Since their return, several individuals have focused more in depth on potential streetcar implementation in this area, including designer Gary Okerlund and former mayor Maurice Cox, two current members of the Streetcar Task Force.  Okerlund Design Associates in particular has looked most closely at the design aspect and what specific architecture is needed along a streetcar route.

Council officially commissioned a Charlottesville Streetcar Task Force just over a year ago.  Gary Okerlund was named as one of the members, along with Harrison Rue of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Council, Rebecca White of UVa’s Parking and Transportation office, and Planning Commissioner Michael Osteen. In all, there are 16 members.

On February 17, 2008, the group will present City Council with a report detailing some of the land use decisions that will have to be made if the City decides to pursue a streetcar system. The work has also included “very preliminary” engineering work.

Careful evaluation of the West Main corridor has revealed that it would likely be able to host a single streetcar track in the middle of the street.  In the event of a streetcar stop, the track would split in two, with a stop creating a new median.  This enables a potential streetcar to run on a predictable schedule without interruption from normal street traffic, with the additional benefit that riders getting on and off would only have to cross one lane of vehicular traffic.

A proposed map of the Streetcar, which would eliminate bus traffic on West Main Street (Source: Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation)

The Downtown Transit Station is the proposed initial streetcar stop in Phase 1, while 1.2 miles away it will terminate at the intersection of West Main and Jefferson Park Avenue.  In between, streetcar planners hope to create a model of transit oriented development, with stops every few blocks intended to promote economic development within close walking distance along the length of the corridor.  A later expansion could go from the Corner to Barracks Road.

Gary Okerlund told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the City has already taken the initial steps toward such development on West Main, with a higher density rezoning several years ago that allowed for taller buildings without additional parking spaces. 

Okerlund said the streetcar will further encourage infill development along West Main Street by providing a reliable way to get around. According to Todd Gordon, his colleague and fellow task force member, a rail-based transit line generally has a "sphere of influence" where development can occur within a quarter mile of the tracks.

Currently, CTS provides its most visible public transportation along West Main Street via its free bus service, known as the trolley.  This special bus designed to look like an old-fashioned streetcar  travels along much of the same pathway as its proposed replacement. The route is currently the most direct connection to the Mall and Grounds, and thus attracts both area residents and employees as well as those riders affiliated with UVa.  During any given hour, there are three vehicles traveling in one direction along the loop. These buses share traffic with other wheeled vehicles, leading to potential delays for riders during rush hour. Annual expenses for the trolley come to a combined $1,026,000 in operating costs for CTS.

Although far and away more expensive, a streetcar has a significant advantage over the existing trolley: it can either separate itself from existing street traffic via a distinct lane, or can utilize a “signal priority” system that turns traffic lights green with its approach, thus staying on a regular schedule.  This consistency – at a pace that may be quicker than driving during rush hour – would be expected to attract those “choice” riders who currently avoid public transportation because of the unpredictability.   One member of the Task Force says a streetcar’s advantage over a bus line is permanence.

"The biggest part of this is to convince people that a streetcar can do a lot more than just take people somewhere,” Gordon. “The streetcar has an ability to attract the dense mixed-use development that I think Charlottesville shown a preference for, and a desire for. And that type of development doesn't spring up around a bus line.”

Gordon says that’s because bus routes can change, whereas rails in the ground  indicate a community’s seriousness about transit.

Furthermore, proponents of a streetcar line remind us that such a mode of transportation contributes less to both noise and air pollution, giving riders and residents added health and environmental benefits. 

“It’s on rails, electrically-powered so it’s quieter, smoother, and far more energy efficient,” Okerlund said.

Gary Okerlund views the streetcar as a way to further the City’s goals of providing its citizens with affordable housing, increased jobs and environmental protection.  Okerlund told Charlottesville Tomorrow that a streetcar would fall in line with each goal via “mixed income housing along the transit-oriented development; more business along that heavily transited corridor; and a lowered environmental impact of cars as more people begin riding the streetcar.”

Okerlund says a firm cost-per-mile figure cannot be established until preliminary engineering is performed. That will take a more detailed analysis, similar to the one now authorized in Arlington County. But he says a streetcar in Charlottesville would have a capital cost between $10 and 15 million per mile. That figure would include the trams that would be operated, but not the annual operating budget.

The last streetcar journey in Charlottesville was taken in 1935 (Source: Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society)

One of the objectives of the Streetcar Task Force has been to identify a variety of sources of funding, including local government, federal dollars and private investments.  A key challenge for the task force, and City Council, will be to demonstrate that, in a small town like Charlottesville, that the up front financial investment in a streetcar will pay dividends for the entire community down “the rails.” Gordon acknowledges that the system will be very expensive to build, but that it could be worth it.

“We’re talking about spending a good deal of money, but because the streetcar has a development attraction to it, there’s a return on investment. The type of  dense development that a streetcar can attract pays into the tax base, and can eventually pay for itself.” 

The streetcar would fit in with other capital transportation projects, such as a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line running along US 29 towards the airport.

"What's important is creating a network of efficient transit so you have the option of going places without getting into a car," Gordon said. If the streetcar were eventually extended to Barracks’ Road, and the streetcar line had a relatively short waiting period between trams, BRT passengers could potentially have a seamless commute  to both the University and downtown Charlottesville.  Okerlund said that the project would not work unless a passenger could catch a tram every ten minutes.

When the report of the Streetcar Task Force is presented to City Council in mid-February, Okerlund said it will give Council an assessment of where the route would be, the potential complications, and a rough cost estimate.  Gordon said the report provides an opportunity for residents to consider the City’s future.

“Unlike a proposal for a bus route, a proposal for street car is half about transit, and half about shaping the kind of development we see in the future,” he said.

Sean Tubbs & Kendall Singleton

A fresh look at the local population data

20080131population_percentThe Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia has released their annual population estimates for Virginia.  I had prepared an analysis for my show yesterday with Coy Barefoot on WINA but we didn't have time to discuss the report.

As I have been following this data for the past several years, I thought the public might benefit from some trend information.  Surprising to me, the City of Charlottesville grew at a faster rate in the prior year than the County of Albemarle, at least on a percentage basis (1.14% vs. 0.98%). [See chart #1]

20080131population_total Of course in raw numbers, the County still added almost twice as many people as Charlottesville (908 vs. 467). [See chart #2]

The Weldon Cooper data is from April 1, 2000 (the census) to July 1, 2007.  That is a period of 7.25 years. During that period, Albemarle has grown by 9,415 people and Charlottesville has grown by 1,175 people. Charlottesville has had a negative net migration (-266 people).  Thus Charlottesville's growth has come more from natural increases (births exceeding deaths).  Albemarle, on the other hand, has had growth predominantly from net migration of people moving into the County (6,472 people).  This amounts to 69% of the increase in the County population since 2000, the remainder coming from natural increases.

Brian Wheeler

January 30, 2008

RWSA outlines $149.8 million in capital project needs


The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s (RWSA) Board of Directors has begun their annual review of the utility’s Capital Improvements Program (CIP) plan. The budget contains the costs of all major capital projects that RWSA is planning to implement in the next five years to support the urban water supply and waste water treatment systems in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

RWSA staff presented a draft capital budget through Fiscal Year 2013 that totals $149.8 million, an increase of $31.7 million (or 26.84%) over last year’s plan.  The RWSA will need to raise $100 million in bond financing to pay for the improvements.  Much of the funds will go to rehabilitation projects, particularly for the sewer system.

Tom Frederick of the RWSA “Many parts of our waste water collection system are frankly wearing out,” said Tom Frederick, to the RWSA’s Board of Directors. “This organization in past years, for whatever reason, hasn’t been putting funding into rehabilitation and repair of piping and keeping current, doing things like repairing manholes and pipes where corrosion has occurred.”

The funds to support the capital projects will ultimately come from ratepayers who purchase water and sewer from the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) or the City of Charlottesville. The RWSA is expected to raise its wholesale rates later this spring, and the ACSA and the City will follow suit passing along price increases to their customers.

Frederick said based on the debt service required to fund the CIP, the City can expect an annual water rate increase of at least 1.2% and the ACSA can expect 2.5% for water. Waste water rates will increase by at least 6.8% for the City and 5.7% for the ACSA. However, final wholesale rates may end up being higher once the RWSA factors in final operating and capital costs.

Those two agencies will calculate their retail rates accordingly after the RWSA Board adopts its operating budget later this spring.

The budget for urban water supply projects in this five-year plan is $59.7 million. The major portion of this amount would go to the first phase of the 50-year community water supply plan, which was endorsed by both Charlottesville and Albemarle County in the summer of 2006. This involves building a new dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir, with a cost of $42.7 million.  The CIP also includes funds for the purchase of the required right-of-way for the pipeline connecting Ragged Mountain Reservoir with the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.  The second phase of the community water supply plan includes construction costs for the new pipeline which will be covered in future capital budgets outside this five-year plan.  Frederick said the target date to complete the pipeline is now 2020*.  The permit for the water supply plan is now pending before the State Water Control Board and final approval is expected as early as March 2008.

The break-down for the Ragged Mountain dam project also includes $3.36 million for a mitigation plan that proposes protecting approximately four areas of wetlands near the Charlottesville Stockyard as well as the preservation and restoration of 75,500 linear feet of streams near Buck Mountain Creek in the County.  The Buck Mountain property in Free Union was acquired for a future reservoir but the site was later deemed unsuitable because of the presence of the James River spiny mussel, an endangered species.

Other urban water projects include upgrades at various water pumping stations ($1.7 million) and more tanks for the storage and distribution of water ($13.6 million). One of these distribution improvements includes a new water pumping station and pipeline along Route 29 to provide for redundancy in the RWSA’s northern service area. The approximately 3-mile long pipeline would travel between the North Rivanna Water Treatment Plant and Carrsbrook Drive. A second phase to complete the Route 29 project is not included in this CIP.

The total for urban waste water projects is $88.26 million, and involves two major items. One is a $44.6 million plan to upgrade the system of interceptors and pumping stations to transport waste water to the Moores Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant. The second is a $46.38 million project to upgrade that facility to be compliant with Virginia Department of Environmental Quality guidelines.

The $25.5 million Meadow Creek Interceptor project will replace a sewer line that was installed in the 1950’s.  Frederick said the project’s price tag went up because RWSA engineers know more about the deteriorating condition of the line. The Schenk’s Branch Interceptor is also slated for replacement as part of a $3.4 million project.

The Moores Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant is the RWSA’s largest facility, and processes 15 million gallons per day. Built in 1982, the plant is no longer compliant with the state’s regulations on the release of nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients into the stream. The RWSA is hoping to receive $15.6 million from the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund to help cover the costs of making the upgrades. The cost estimate included in the draft CIP includes $6 million to institute odor control measures as part of the upgrade.

Frederick acknowledged that the cost for urban  waste water projects was steep, but said the projects being undertaken are necessary to comply with environmental regulations. “Until within the past couple of years, an understanding of the deficiencies  of the RWSA system were lacking,” Frederick said.  An in-depth sewer interceptor study will be completed in the Spring of 2008 which may identify additional capital needs to improve and expand existing infrastructure.

The RWSA Board deferred action on the CIP until its February meeting.

Sean Tubbs

January 29, 2008

Odor controls at wastewater treatment facility will be costly

Ron Taylor (right) of Hazen and Sawyer presents the odor control report while Woolen Mills residents Bill Emory (left) and Karl Ackerman (center) listen

A plan to eliminate virtually all odors from the urban area's waste water treatment plant could cost as much as $32.3 million in capital costs, according to a report presented to the Board of Directors of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA).

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20080128-RWSA-Odor.mp3

The report was commissioned after the RWSA continued to receive complaints from residents about odors emanating from the vicinity of the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. In February of last year, the RWSA closed down a composting facility as the first step in addressing complaints from residents of the city's Woolen Mills and Belmont-Carlton neighborhoods. A report from the firm Hazen and Sawyer identified the closure as the most cost-effective way of reducing the odor.

Despite a reported drop in the number of complaints in the summer of 2007, the second study was commissioned to identify additional methods of removing odors.  The RWSA heard this report at their monthly meeting on January 28, 2008.

Hazen and Sawyer, a company that specializes in wastewater management, is also working with RWSA staff to design mandated upgrades to Moores Creek to comply with Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Prior to the presentation of the report, Woolen Mills resident Karl Ackerman told the Board that the odor problem affects the whole area serviced by the RWSA. He said this past fall was particularly awful because odors are worse in drought conditions. Ackerman pleaded with the RWSA Board to solve the problem no matter the cost, and pointed out that much of the growth in wastewater and sewage anticipated to be treated at the plant in coming years will come from County homes.

“If builders, new residents and County officials expect to send all of this new sewage to Moore's Creek, we who live beside it will only accept it odor-free,” Ackerman said. “We breathe the air fouled by the biological waste of the greater community.” He called for a surcharge on all new homes built in the County to pay for the option. 

According to this second Hazen and Sawyer report, Moores Creek currently does not have any specific odor control mitigation steps, besides what is called for in the wastewater industry's best practices. The review identified three levels of odor removal that could possibly be attained.


Option 1 would guarantee a 99.7% mitigation of 99.7%, which would translate to an estimate of at least an average of one day per year where the plant could be smelled by its neighbors. Option 2 would include one less scrubber, and would provide 99% removal of odor. Option 3 would provide 95% removal and would cost $11.2 million.

“There is a significant diminishing of returns as you try to get to higher and higher percents of removal,” said Ron Taylor of Hazen and Sawyer. He said only a small number of wastewater treatment plants in the United States provided any specific odor control problems, and those that do only provide 95 percent removal of odors.  The report states that “it is cost prohibitive to design a system that would guarantee that odors will never migrate off site.”

Technologies that might apply to Moores Creek include wet scrubbers, carbon absorption units, bio-filtration, and thermal oxidizers.

Option 1 would provide 99.7% removal of odor (Source: Hazen and Sawyer)

Option 1 would include completely enclosing various pump stations and holding tanks. An entirely new septage receiving station would be constructed. Chemicals would be used to scrub the sewage as it proceeds through the grit removal facilities, gravity thickeners and digesters. Option 1 also features a $10 million dollar scrubber for the holding ponds.

If the RWSA was to proceed with odor control, Taylor recommended using a phased approach in which any odor mitigation procedures would be added while the nutrient removal upgrades are performed. Major capital costs in Taylor's suggested phase 1 would include the new septage station, a new scrubber facility for the north side of the plant, as well as the covering of several pools and basins that are currently open to the air.

“The first phase would address those areas that are most likely to propagate odors off site,” Taylor said.

Phase 1 would cost $6 million, which is exactly how much RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick said is budgeted for odor mitigation for this year.

City Public Work Director and RWSA Board member Judy Mueller said she wanted her engineers to review the report before making a decision. City Manager Gary O'Connell said he wanted someone to schedule time to explain these possibilities to neighborhood residents.

The Board deferred action until February.


  • The Board also heard details on its proposed five-year 2008-2013 Capital Improvement Program, which for the first year includes costs associated with the implementation of the Community Water Supply Plan. The RWSA is now waiting to find out if the DEQ will schedule a formal public hearing to consider the draft permit for the new Ragged Mountain Dam, a key component of the plan. Charlottesville Tomorrow will cover this story in a separate article.
  • Frederick said computer modeling shows area reservoirs are likely to refill before late April. However, he said residents should continue to voluntarily conserve water to ensure that the reservoirs won't quickly empty if dry conditions persist. The drought warning was reduced to a drought watch earlier this month.
  • The Board  passed a resolution calling on the Governor and the General Assembly to not renege on funding the Water Quality Improvement Fund, which the RWSA is counting on for $16 million to pay for a good portion of the upgrades to Moores Creek Wastewater Plant.

Sean Tubbs

January 28, 2008

Downtown Mall design concepts shared with community

20080128mallpools2_2 On January 28, 2008, the City of Charlottesville held a stakeholder meeting and design charrette related to the Downtown Mall renovation project for business and nonprofit representatives.  Two additional meetings are being held tomorrow [morning & evening].

Jim Tolbert, Director of Charlottesville’s Neighborhood Development Services, told the nine community members in attendance that the City wants to hear their ideas about the future of the Downtown Mall.  “We haven’t made any decisions yet….Keeping businesses viable and open is our goal,” said Tolbert.  An online survey is also available to collect citizen feedback on the Downtown Mall project.

Facilitator Becky Clay Christensen said the goal of these meetings was to describe the emerging design concepts and to collect additional feedback on design elements that are missing, are a concern, or that have the support of the community.

Sqphotomall200706 Bob Stroh, Co-Chair of the Downtown Business Association, said, “I see a system under stress from every conceivable direction.”  Christensen said that the design team had been meeting with business representatives on the Mall since last October.  Christensen acknowledged that there had been “extreme tension” around the construction period and the phasing of the project in her meetings with the business community.

Chris McKnight, a consultant with MMM Design Group, said his firm had been hired by the City to complete a renovation plan that would honor the original 1974 design by Lawrence Halprin, but also integrate ideas from the City’s 2001 Master Plan for the Mall prepared by Wallace, Roberts and Todd.  McKnight said the project would involve a tree replacement program, new pavers for the walking surface, improved lighting, new fountains, Art-in-Place displays, and enhancements for Mall cafes.

20080128mallgroupParticipants in the stakeholder meeting were asked to note their likes, their concerns, and suggested missing features in the design concepts.  New water features anchoring both ends of the mall received positive feedback, and questions about maintenance issues and the use of recycled rain water.  One concept shows a staircase of pools between the ice rink and the Omni Hotel (illustration above).  At the East end of the mall in front of Bashir’s, the plan shows an interactive splash water feature that will be activated by pedestrian movements.  The water nozzles will be integrated into the new mall surface.  The design concepts also feature new information kiosks, seating, and new trees.

20080128gould The Mall’s willow oaks would normally have a life span of 100 years.  However, in the harsh urban environment, the trees are expected to only last 40-60 years.  Taylor Gould, Senior Landscape Architect with MMM Design Group, told the audience that the new willow oaks would be phased in as part of a tree replacement program.  The ginkgo trees on the side streets would be maintained.  Existing red maples would be replaced with another more tolerant species that strengthens the mall’s green canopy.

How much “green” will be seen by mall businesses during the construction was a key concern in a recent Business Impact Survey.  Both Christensen and Tolbert emphasized the importance of a marketing program that supports businesses during the two to three year construction period.  “The City is committed to working with downtown businesses on increased advertising and special events to ensure the public knows they are open for business,” said Tolbert. 

20080128mallgroup2_2According to Tolbert, construction is expected to begin in 2009, but the exact staging or phasing of the project has not been decided.  “We don’t know yet… Until we bring in a construction management team and finalize the design, we won’t know the [construction schedule].”

Brian Wheeler

City Planning Commission to consider new proffer guidelines


The Charlottesville Planning Commission is considering whether or not to adopt new guidelines for how to deal with “in-kind” and cash proffers from developers seeking a rezoning. At a January 22nd work session, staff sought feedback on whether a cash proffer policy should be initiated, and if a proffer review sheet would be a useful tool. 

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20080122-CPC-Proffers.mp3

Compared to Albemarle County, there are relatively few re-zonings in the City. Neighborhood Planner Missy Creasy said there were only five re-zonings in Charlottesville for all of 2007, and two of those were withdrawn by the applicant. However, one of those re-zonings prompted some on City Council to ask for tighter guidelines of what can be expected.

In August of last year, the Commission voted 4-2 to recommend denial of a rezoning for a new nine-story building to be built in the northeast corner of the intersection of Ridge-McIntire.  A month later, City Council approved the rezoning after the developer agreed to increase a proffered contribution to the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

“We get very limited rezonings, but the ones that do come forward require a lot of discussion,” Creasy said.
Creasy said there is a proffer policy in place, but it does not address many of the issues that have come up in recent years.

Last year, the Commission and staff developed a draft proffer review sheet to be used as a guide in accepting “in-kind” donations. This document provides an opportunity for staff to review how any proffers generated through the rezoning might address the city’s infrastructure and planning needs. Areas of interest to the city include affordable housing, environmental impacts, opportunities for green building, and potential impacts on traffic congestion. The draft sheet also clearly outlines explains to each applicant what the legal requirements of proffers are, in light of state legislation that recently expanded their potential use.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is, because we have this new-found authority  to take a lot of proffers that we couldn’t have taken before, we’re trying to give some process to it, so there is going to be a definitely reasonable relationship between the impacts and the proffers,” said Rich Harris, the City’s Deputy Attorney. 

Harris cautioned that any discussion of cash proffers may be academic, given that a bill to prohibit them in favor of impact fees is making its way through the General Assembly. 

The County arrived at a figure of $17,500 after coming up with an estimated of how much each new residential unit costs to provide services. The Commission decided that a similar calculation of the incremental impacts of new development in the City would yield a much smaller number. Commissioner Jason Pearson suggested it might be difficult to calculate the incremental impact of each rezoning, given that there aren’t as many opportunities to rezone in the City as in the County, which has more available land to develop.

Other Commissioners wanted to know more information about what an “in-kind” proffer might mean. For instance, Keller asked if a developer offered to donate funding to purchase a land trust, would that be considered a cash-proffer or an in-kind one? Harris said that would likely be considered as in-kind.

Next month, the Planning Commission will also take up new zoning districts for the Downtown Mall and the West Main and South Street corridors. New height restrictions are being considered that would limit by-right development potential, meaning developers would need to apply for a special use permit if they wanted to build extra units.Commissioner Cheri Lewis asked if the City could collect additional proffers in exchange for that permit.  That prompted a philosophical discussion in which Pearson said he felt zoning should be a way to guide development, rather than a way to simply get proffers.

The revised proffer policy will be discussed at the Planning Commission’s next meeting on February 12, 2008.

Sean Tubbs

January 25, 2008

Data said to support Pen Park alignment for Eastern Connector

Last month, the Eastern Connector Steering Committee asked for more justification for the road project that is proposed to connect Route 29 N to the Pantops area.  At their monthly meeting on January 23, 2008, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) got their first look at two of the answers--Our traffic problems have local origins and one specific Eastern Connector proposal is projected to significantly outperform all the others.  Consultant Lewis Grimm made his case to the MPO that the data shows an alignment of the Eastern Connector in the Pen Park area would have the greatest impact on reducing peak hour traffic volumes on Route 250 at Free Bridge.

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20080123-MPO-EC.MP3

20080123mpoec3aThe City and County are jointly funding an alignment study to determine the Eastern Connector’s preferred location.  From more than a dozen alignment options, the Steering Committee has whittled it down to three different two-lane alternatives.  In late 2007, the public and policymakers expressed skepticism about the benefits any of the alternatives would provide to travel time.  The average improvement was projected to be from 24 seconds to two minutes for a car traveling from Hollymead to Pantops on the Eastern Connector. 

First, Grimm’s firm decided to revisit data collected in 1999 when VDOT conducted an in-depth license plate survey that examined the origin and destination of vehicles at 26 different survey locations in and around Charlottesville.

Grimm reported that the 1999 study showed that traffic was very dispersed in the area.  This runs counter, he said, to the public perception that lots of traffic is trying to get from Route 29 N to I-64 East towards Richmond.  “That’s one of the key findings…other than a few locations it is a fairly dispersed pattern,” said Grimm.  The license plate survey shows that 5% of all vehicle trips are really though trips, those vehicles starting outside the area and finishing outside the area.  Grimm told Charlottesville Tomorrow that this data was reviewed to address the public perception that it was an Eastern Bypass that was needed, and not a new local connector road.

20080123mpo1 Reflecting on the license plate survey, Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) described the traffic congestion as a local problem, “Look around the room, the problem is us. It’s not them.  It’s not someone from Greene County.”  Grimm emphasized that the Eastern Connector is a road intended to solve a local problem and not regional traffic flows.

The second major piece of feedback from the public was concern that the data did not show what would happen to traffic congestion during rush hour periods.  So a team of transportation engineers in PBS&J’s Atlanta office was called upon to examine the local traffic model and calculate what impact each Eastern Connector alignment would have during peak traffic volumes.  Grimm said he wanted to put his firm’s experience in other urban areas to use on the Charlottesville data.  “We decided to look through our library and find adjustment factors that would give us a reasonable estimate of the peak hour movements.”


Based upon this work, Grimm reported to the MPO that, of the three alignment alternatives, the Pen Park option would remove the most traffic, 13.6% of the volume projected to be at Free Bridge on Route 250 in the year 2025.  Travel time savings during rush hour have not yet been calculated.  Without the new road, traffic volumes there are projected to grow from 48,210 vehicles per day in the year 2005 to 68,340 vehicles per day in the year 2025, or a 41.8% increase.

The next public meeting of the Eastern Connector Steering Committee is scheduled for February 8, 2008 where they are expected to receive a similar presentation.

Brian Wheeler

City Planning Commission gives feedback on expanding stream buffer ordinance

Stream1 The City of Charlottesville adopted a stream buffer ordinance in September 2004 as the first step to strengthen the City’s watershed protection measures. Two and a half years later, the City is still weighing what the next steps should be to add additional protections.

At their work session on January 22, 2008, the Charlottesville Planning Commission discussed three options for how the City might proceed.  Commissioners Hosea Mitchell and Michael Osteen were not present at this meeting.

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Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20080122-CPC-Stream-Buffers.mp3

The 2004 ordinance was adopted as part of the effort to reduce pollution and sediment in waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.  Any City property that borders the Rivanna River, Moore’s Creek or Meadow Creek is subject to a 100 foot wide buffer in which construction activity is limited.

Kristel Riddelvold, the City’s Environmental Administrator, said there has been much discussion about what could be done to strengthen water protection measures along other streams in the City.

“We’ve got an opportunity to protect habitat along streams that we don’t currently have any protections for,” Riddervold said. During the meeting, she said expanding the ordinance could protect up to almost 20 additional miles of streams that are currently not protected.  A majority of those streams have intact buffers where development has not yet occurred.

“Stream buffers provide a service, but they don’t solve the entire problem of pollutants that run across surfaces into the streams,” she said. Riddervold added that different kinds of buffers can accomplish different goals. That would require changes to the ordinance to allow flexibility.

“Some of the literature points at 25 to 30 feet being a good width if your primary goal is stabilizing stream banks, and it’s largely at 50 feet and beyond up to 200 and 300 feet where some of the other potential benefits, such as holding back some sediment  or dealing with  other pollutants that move through overland flow,” Riddervold said. The larger the buffer, the more properties would be affected.

Staff has presented the Commission with three options to consider. First, the City could simply expand the existing stream buffer ordinance to additional streams, most notably Schenk’s Branch along McIntire Road and the proposed Meadowcreek Parkway. Other funds would be spent to scientifically identify an appropriate buffer for other streams. Assuming a 100 foot buffer, this would affect 1,894 parcels of City land. Authority to impose the buffer would come from the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act (CBPA).

Second, a zoning overlay could be initiated that would impose a 50-foot buffer. The staff report shows this would affect 1,472 parcels of land, and would give city zoning staff the authority to administratively review any proposals to disturb land in those areas. However staff is concerned there are not currently enough employees to perform the necessary review and inspections. Authority to impose the overlay would also come from CBPA.

Third, a voluntary campaign could be initiated to educate the public on the environmental benefits. The City could consider tax incentives to discourage development in the buffer zones.

The Commission will take this matter up later on in the year.  In the meantime, staff will collect additional data on what other communities are doing.

Sean Tubbs

Career-staffed Pantops Fire station reaffirmed by Board

20080125fdengine A plan to increase the Albemarle County Department of Fire and Rescue’s presence on Pantops Mountain has received new support from the County Board of Supervisors.  In December, Supervisors had suggested revisiting the Pantops fire station initiative as a way to balance the Board’s five-year financial plan.  Under review were both the need for the station as well as the mix of volunteer and career personnel. The Board’s questions required Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Eggleston to provide additional information before proceeding with a new temporary station set to open in July 2009.

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Supervisors voted 5-1 in May 2007 to move ahead with that temporary station, which has been identified by Fire and Rescue officials as necessary to increase response times to neighborhoods on Pantops Mountain. The area is currently served in part on a contract basis by the City of Charlottesville, but that agreement will expire in 2009. Staff are currently identifying sites for a temporary station, which will be made permanent in 2014.

The Board’s five-year financial forecast also shows 12 more career firefighters for the East Ivy fire station beginning in 2010. Eggleston told Charlottesville Tomorrow that each full-time employee will cost the county an average of $60,000 with salary and benefits. That cost has prompted some Supervisors to be concerned about the accompanying growth in the County budget. At the Board’s strategic retreat in September, former Supervisor David Wyant (White Hall) suggested the County should find ways to boost volunteer participation in order to save on the cost of hiring full-time employees. Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) has also been urging the study of this tactic as a way of saving the County money.

At the Board’s meeting on January 23, 2008, Chief Dan Eggleston had the opportunity to explain again why he felt Pantops would only be served with a new station as well as career staff. He said it was crucial for Pantops to be fully operational by the time the City contract expires. Otherwise, he predicted the level of service would fail for the entire eastern half of the County.  If the County were to renew the agreement with the City, it would likely cost $2 million a year.

Rooker asked if the City would still respond to County calls once the agreement lapses. Eggleston said a mutual aid agreement with the Charlottesville Fire Department would be put in place, but that this unpaid cooperation would only occur on the most urgent of calls. Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) asked if there was a way to pay to ensure that the City would continue to respond, and Eggleston responded that would make negotiating a mutual aid agreement much more difficult.

Eggleston also asked that the EMS revenue recovery funds that the County is planning on charging citizens’ insurance companies be used to further enhance the system. Eggleston said his department is on track to begin charging the fees beginning with the next fiscal year.

On the issue of staffing, Eggleston says the County is currently way ahead of the nationwide average of a 1 percent annual decline in the number fire/rescue volunteers. Eggleston says Albemarle gains 2 percent a year, but that figure would not be enough to come up with the 11 to 15 volunteers necessary to consistently staff the new station.

20080125fdmen_3 “Our current system as it stands today is short about 200 to 230 volunteers,” Eggleston said, adding that means many fire stations are currently undermanned. “It has been our strategy all along to supplement the system with career staff to ensure that that primary emergency unit gets out consistently and reliably. The 12 career staff for Pantops will ensure that fire engine response, with three people minimum and [Advanced Life Support] trained and equipped staff 24-7.”

Eggleston said an aggressive campaign will be undertaken to recruit volunteers for Pantops, but anyone extra would go to adding capacity.

Eggleston said if only 10 career employees were hired, that would leave two vacancies that would need to be filled. He estimated 11 to 15 volunteers would need to be recruited to fill the gap to ensure 24-7 coverage for Pantops, taking away from efforts to cover the rural areas.

Supervisor Rooker suggested that the Fire and Rescue Department attempt to pursue that strategy. Eggleston warned against budgeting for less than 12, and reminded the Board that when the Monticello Fire Station opened in 2002, he had to ask for more money to fully staff the station because not enough volunteers were fully trained the day it became operational.

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) suggested that the County experiment with going with 12 career staff for the foreseeable future, but that every effort be made to retain more volunteers. Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) asked the Department to provide an analysis of volunteer recruitment for urban areas versus rural areas. Supervisor Thomas suggested that the University of Virginia be brought into the discussion, given that much of the turnover each year is related to student volunteers.

The discussion ended with consensus that the Fire and Rescue Department proceed with the plans to hire 12 career staff to be in place when the temporary Pantops station opens in the summer of 2009.

Sean Tubbs

January 24, 2008

Board postpones action on rural protection ordinances


The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has postponed action on three ordinances to increase protection of the County's natural resources. Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) recommended that the public be provided the opportunity to weigh in on changes that have been made since the Board held a public hearing last October.

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“I believe it’s very important that we always have as much public input as we can,” Boyd said shortly after introducing the item at the Board’s January 23 meeting.  Boyd felt not enough notice had been given to the public and he exercised his prerogative as Chairman to allow public comment on the discussion. However, time constraints prevented that from occurring at this meeting as two Supervisors, Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) and David Slutzky (Rio),  had to leave the meeting to attend an MPO Policy Board meeting.

Supervisor Rooker said there had been no rush to judgment, pointing out that the Board had a lengthy public hearing in October.  On October 10, 2007 over 80 speakers addressed the Board for four hours providing input on the rural area ordinance changes.

“This process has gone about six years, of trying to adopt some of these rural area provisions that are included in our land use plan. There have been more than seventy meetings held dealing with these and other recommendations that are in the rural area plan,” Rooker said.

Rooker said the changes to the ordinances were scaled back due to public feedback, and that the public had a right to a decision.  He said Boyd had previously brought items up for action without any public input, citing the Board’s 2006 decision to join the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Boyd thought the public needed to know what changes had been made before the Board takes action. For instance, he said he disagreed with the science behind the proposed requirement that no construction can occur within 100 feet of a stream. He said he felt the Planning Commission had not done enough to investigate the issues. 

Mark Graham, the County’s Director of Community Development, said that the County’s authority to impose a 100-foot buffer is granted by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1988.  Currently, half of Albemarle does have a 100-foot stream buffer in place, and the ordinance change would apply it to the entire County.

Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said she had not taken the two recent holidays  into consideration when she made her motion to place this item on the agenda, and she noted the Board could not have predicted the snow storm that closed the County Office Building the previous Thursday afternoon. She agreed that more time should be given for the public to study the changes.

After some discussion, the Board agreed to delay action until another public input session can be held. That date was set for the February 6 Board meeting, and the item has tentatively been scheduled for that evening. Boyd asked for staff to prepare a Frequently Asked Questions page to provide a place for citizens to find answers about the proposed ordinance changes.

Sean Tubbs